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Ohio company, cooperative cashing in on demand for culinary chestnuts
 
By CELESTE BAUMGARTNER
Ohio Correspondent

CARROLLTON, Ohio — In the 1960s and ‘70s, Jay Miller planted some Chinese chestnut trees. They did pretty well, said his son, Greg, who has turned those trees into a career – the Empire Chestnut Co.

“I am involved in the chestnut business full-time,” Greg Miller said. “After I graduated college in 1984, I came back home and converted my dad’s hobby into a business, which was a slow conversion. We started selling the chestnuts, as culinary nuts, something to eat.”

In the early 1990s Miller started a nursery and grew Chinese chestnut seedlings, trees to market as producers of chestnuts, he said. Chinese chestnuts do well in the area – east-central Ohio, at the foot of the Appalachians – but not as a forest tree, as the American chestnut tree was.

Chinese chestnuts, however, have a better flavor than their American cousins, Miller said. And they are easier to harvest; they are hand-picked off the ground after they fall. American chestnuts tend to stay on the tree and become a favorite of blue jays. They are also 2-3 times smaller than Chinese nuts.

“The Chinese chestnut trees are more of an agricultural crop rather than a replacement of a forest tree, which is an ambition of the American Chestnut Foundation (ACF),” he said. “I have also been involved with the ACF, in producing thousands of American chestnut seedlings.”

When he started in the nursery business, property in the area had been strip-mined. The mining company planted 8,000 chestnut trees from his nursery on undisturbed and mined land.
“Among me and my neighbors, we’ve got collectively 90-acres of chestnut trees in production,” Miller said. “That crop kept getting bigger and bigger and it got to be more than I could handle.
“In 2010 we growers formed an agricultural cooperative, Route 9 Cooperative, and built a new chestnut packing facility.”
The chestnuts are harvested off the ground, after they fall. The cooperative harvested about 60,000 pounds of Chinese chestnuts in 2012, Miller said.

“We’re all sold out of those and I got another 11,000 or 12,000 pounds from a grower in Pennsylvania to help us fill our orders,” he explained. “Our biggest buyer markets them in the New York City area. We also sell them online all over the country.

“We have this situation where right now there is a lot more demand for chestnuts than the United States can or does produce. So there seems to be an opportunity to plant more trees and get more production.”

With the cooperative doing well, Miller is trying to hand off the culinary nut packing business to it so he can concentrate more on the nursery part of the business, explaining he can’t do both. “The main goal of the nursery business is to produce chestnut trees for nut production, to foster that growth of the industry,” he said.
A chestnut tree takes 3-7 years to produce, Miller said. While chestnut trees have a reputation of growing well in poor soil, they are mountainside trees and need well-drained soil.

“They grow on mountainsides just fine,” Miller said. “They don’t grow on nice, flat Midwestern soil where corn does great. There are lots of places that that corn does well, but chestnuts won’t.”
For more information about these businesses, visit www.empirechestnut.com and www.route9cooperative.com
12/19/2012